Day by Day #43: Avant-Garbage, Songwriting, and an Alaskan Castle [Opinions-Stronger-Than-Usual Piece]

Generally when someone has been from a blog a long while, they say something like, “Oh! I’m so sorry I haven’t blogged in so long! See, I’ve just been really busy…” Hah! You’re not kidding anyone. You’re not busy; no one is that busy. No one can’t not spend thirty minutes doing something they had planned to do in the first place. It was either forgetfulness or disinterest, a dichotomy consistently played out in my own experience.

I’ve been thinking a lot about songwriting lately. About two years ago, I tried my own hand at it. The initial result was enough to make me cry in failure. I didn’t know a lick of the skill, except how to make lyrics sound like they are more than they actually are. And that generally comes off as stuck-up, like these prose. When I found my first song a year later, I promptly threw it away, thanking God that no one had seen it. Now, I’m fairly comfortable with songwriting, but I’m certainly no Bob Dylan. The half success I’ve felt has largely come from dismantling a few myths:

1. Pink Floyd songs are very simple.

2. None of the members of ABBA could read or write music.

3. Brian Eno is not a fairy.

Once these three primary myths were dismantled, I felt very free. What did I learn from each one? Let’s find out! Woohoo!

1. When I learned how to play “Wish You Were Here” on the piano within 5 minutes, I realized that, for all the grandiosity classic Pink Floyd songs have…they are very simple. In order to make a grand or good song, it does not have to be complicated. Complexity doesn’t add to the emotional effect of a song; it can, certainly. But you’ll find that if you just play around on the piano, you’ll come across a mere two chords that, when put together, can make you cry. It just takes two chords; a simple progression. All of the grandness of Pink Floyd doesn’t come from complexity; it comes from incredibly good melodies and production (and a bit of angst. Those danged politicians and evil record companies.)

Production is something I haven’t yet tangoed with, but that’s good, because I don’t have to worry about it for now. It’s probably as easy as getting Brian Eno playing one note on a synthesizer for a really long time, then, ten minutes in, play a different note for a really long time and all I have to do is sit there and drink coffee. Sounds great!

2. ABBA couldn’t read or write music. Here’s the kicker, though; they created all their music. Odd, right? Not so much. If music is a language, then it can easily be spoken without having to write it down. There are plenty of people who can’t read or write, but they can speak. And when you can record, writing down the music is largely unnecessary. That’s relief to me, because I despise writing down music.

3. Brian Eno doesn’t live in pianos, living off the sawdust between the keys, throwing fairy dust at any sight of a good idea. He is at a studio, with me drinking coffee, making lush soundscapes. That is, when you start writing a song, it won’t be completed in a snap. It takes other people, primarily people who work at recording studios.

My inspiration comes in the form of vivid and eye-popping images. They disseminate from very mundane things. I get an image from something mundane and then I have to distill or expand the image into something workable. It’s this, of all things, that gives me the most pleasure and satisfaction. It’s a wonder to me, every time, that I even get these images and that it’s actually in the realm of possibility to do something with them! Thinking about it right now makes me really happy. I don’t know why I get these images, or if I’m the only person in the world who gets them. Frankly, I don’t care. Yet, I’m very grateful for them and I hope they keep coming. I have two on queue right now, not currently grown. One might turn into a song:

1. Imagine a desert that stretches out forever. All the sand is hard as rock. There is a corpse sprawled on the ground, with its face towards the ground. Imagine you are the sun, like an eye, zooming in on the corpse. As you get closer, you see the face of someone familiar. It looks like the face of God. As you get closer, the sand gets softer and begins to melt into sinking sand. Once you are down next to the face, the sinking sand begins to eat up the corpse, like the mighty sarlacc! The corpse becomes warm with life, from you, and starts to panic, screaming. He sinks through the sand, struggling to get out. You look into his eyes, but you no longer see the face of God. You see your face. ooooooooooooooo!

A bit disturbing, yeah, but I think I can distill it into something a bit more family-friendly.

2. Imagine a professor teaching a sociology class about implications, community, and human behavior. He wants to demonstrate to his students how much power the individual human has over other humans. At the beginning of class, without saying a word, he stands up on his desk – an old, tottering man and an old, tottering desk – beats his chest, yells wildly, and then points at all of the students. He then yells, “Look at my power! Look at the power I have over your thoughts! I am controlling your reactions; your expectations, your-” He then grabs his chest, grows silent, and falls down dead.

Again, I know what this image can be used to produce, but I am not sure if it’s an image that can be distilled into something internally consistent.

Apologies if the above images make you uncomfortable. Keep in mind that they have not yet germinated.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the use of vivid images. There is this cycle of avant-garde movies, called “The Cremaster Cycle”. I encourage you not to watch a single second of it; because it’s a steaming pile of garbage. In no way do I recommend the movie. It is a collection of idea-seeds, loosely strung together. But the production of these images? That’s my problem with the movie. It seems like the art world readily accepts ideas that have not yet fully germinated. That’s what the Cremaster Cycle is. It is a testament to laziness. Suddenly, it is something to string together corn seeds, instead of popcorn. The maker, Matthew Barney (who is also the musician Bjork’s partner), has explicitly stated that the movie’s meaning is up to the viewer. That tells me that he was too lazy to do something with it himself. He leaves the entire difficulty and skill of the project – to produce or point out a purpose – to the viewer.

Granted, I accept that it is certainly an interesting experiment, but I hope that the result of the experiment isn’t admiration, but a reminder that things like the Cremaster Cycle don’t work.

I have some sympathy for the postmodern idea of the audience deciphering the work, instead of the artist doing so. But I also find it to be of paramount laziness and disregard. If the artist was unable to decipher the work himself, then there was nothing to decipher. Don’t go into something like that, expecting genius. Don’t even expect meaning. If there is any meaning, it is the coincidental result of an ordered world. The cool thing about the Cremaster Cycle is that meaning can come from it at all. Like Matthew Barney said, the project essentially becomes greater than the artist. I realize this. I also think that you can easily enjoy watching the darn thing. Do not, however, say that Matthew Barney is a genius. He’s not. He is someone just like me, except that he wasn’t willing to put in the work required to produce the images. He is a wealthy and relatively willful lazy man. If there is any greatness in the Cremaster Cycle, it is not by pure chance, but by the result, like I said, of an ordered world.

That is not to say, however, that audience participation should be condoned. That’s not what I’m saying at all. And I’m also not saying that things should be blatantly stated. “Dis means dat.” Like the very wise Unknown once said, “Art is something that should hover on the fringe of the consciousness.” This has been said many times before in many different ways. There should be some mystery to art. That’s what makes it interesting. But mystery, without purpose, is not interesting. It’s drivel. Anyone who subjects themselves to something like that is wasting their brain, because there is nothing to latch onto. The human brain naturally looks for purpose, so when it engages with something like the Cremaster Cycle, it will be a continual rat race, explanations of things that aren’t there, and excuses.

That is to say, mystery + purpose is art. There needs to be a balance between viewer and creator participation. It is a very fine balance. How can you have mystery, without deluding the purpose? How can you have too much purpose, without making it too boring? This balance is a challenge for the artist and it should be the audience’s challenge to work with what the artist has produced. The primary assumption here is that art is a form of communication. Remember how music was a language? The entire purpose is to communicate something effectively. When there is no purpose behind the art, you’re not communicating anything. You’re telling the viewer, “Guess what I’m saying! Guess what I’m saying! Guess what I’m saying! Done guessing? Drum roll please…I’M SAYING NOTHING! How cool is that, huh?”

Why do you think, up until recently, pieces of art have always had morals or purposes? The earliest pieces of literature we see have purposes and meanings to them. This is the natural way of things. Pieces like the Cremaster Cycle will, eventually, fall under their own weight. They have nothing to say, so they won’t stick. It’s self-defeating. It’s deliberately creating something empty, a deliberate lack of distillation. It’s not a completed piece.

When I lay in my bed at night, I brainstorm about a lot of things. Recently, I have thought about how, why, or when I would build a beautiful castle on top of an Alaskan mountain. How come no one has done that yet? Maybe there’s zoning issues. I’ll need to talk to Sarah about it, for sure.

I have an idea I’ve yet to work on, but one that, if enacted, should prove to be very helpful. Every three years, I would write a roughly 50 thousand word book called “My Understanding of Things”. It would be outlined like so:

A. The Purpose

B. The Subjects

1. Art: movies, music, paintings, literature

2. Science: politics, biology, physics, etc.

3. Relationships: parents, friends, siblings, strangers, children, spouse, church family

4. Personal strengths

5. Personal weaknesses

C. For the Future

The above outline should have explained a bit what this is all about. It’s a checkpoint. It’s a history. Most importantly, it’s a way to grow. By logging what I once was and what I am at the time, I can decide who I want to be. The books following the first, “the purpose” section would change to “what I was”. It would log how I’ve changed and responded to my challenges for growth.

Now, you might be thinking, “a book, simply for yourself, every three years? Preposterous!” But, think about it. What is easier than spewing about what you believe, hate, and love? That’s the easiest thing in the world. We almost do it too much. In theory, writing these books would be a breeze, even if there was no motivation for others reading it. I have been considering if I wanted people to read My Understanding, but I would probably only share it if the other person had written their own. This would promote another motivation. If many people would begin to write a My Understanding, I couldn’t imagine anything more insightful or interesting, concerning other people. Personally, I love interchanges between two people. I love to have people hear about who I am, but I love it more when people tell me what they are excited about.

Let’s hope I get to it.

And with all this, goodbye. I hope you have learned some stuff that’s good.